by Henry Lawson
While the Billy Boils (1896)
Iron Bark Tree, Photographic Reproduction (edited), Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880)
Jack Drew sat on the edge of the shaft, with his foot in the loop and one hand on the rope, ready to descend. His elder brother, Tom, stood at one end of the windlass and the third mate at the other. Jack paused before swinging off, looked up at his brother, and impulsively held out his hand:
“You ain’t going to let the sun go down, are you, Tom?”
But Tom kept both hands on the windlass-handle and said nothing.
They lowered him to the bottom, and Tom shouldered his pick in silence and walked off to the tent. He found the tin plate, pint-pot, and things set ready for him on the rough slab table under the bush shed. The tea was made, the cabbage and potatoes strained and placed in a billy near the fire. He found the fried bacon and steak between two plates in the camp-oven. He sat down to the table but he could not eat. He felt mean. The inexperience and hasty temper of his brother had caused the quarrel between them that morning; but then Jack admitted that, and apologized when he first tried to make it up.
Tom moved round uneasily and tried to smoke: he could not get Jack’s last appeal out of his ears —“You ain’t going to let the sun go down, Tom?”
Tom found himself glancing at the sun. It was less than two hours from sunset. He thought of the words of the old Hebrew — or Chinese — poet; he wasn’t religious, and the authorship didn’t matter. The old poet’s words began to haunt him “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath — Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”
The line contains good, sound advice; for quick-tempered men are often the most sensitive, and when they let the sun go down on the aforesaid wrath that quality is likely to get them down and worry them during the night.
Tom started to go to the claim, but checked himself, and sat down and tried to draw comfort from his pipe. He understood his brother thoroughly, but his brother never understood him — that was where the trouble was. Presently he got thinking how Jack would worry about the quarrel and have no heart for his work. Perhaps he was fretting over it now, all alone by himself, down at the end of the damp, dark drive. Tom had a lot of the old woman about him, in spite of his unsociable ways and brooding temper.
He had almost made up his mind to go below again, on some excuse, when his mate shouted from the top of the shaft:
“Tom! Tom! For Christ’s sake come here!”
Tom’s heart gave a great thump, and he ran like a kangaroo to the shaft. All the diggers within hearing were soon on the spot. They saw at a glance what had happened. It was madness to sink without timber in such treacherous ground. The sides of the shaft were closing in. Tom sprang forward and shouted through the crevice:
“To the face, Jack! To the face, for your life!”
“The old Workings!” he cried, turning to the diggers. “Bring a fan and tools. We’ll dig him out.”
A few minutes later a fan was rigged over a deserted shaft close by, where fortunately the windlass had been left for bailing purposes, and men were down in the old drive. Tom knew that he and his mates had driven very close to the old workings.
He knelt in the damp clay before the face and worked like a madman; he refused to take turn about, and only dropped the pick to seize a shovel in his strong hands, and snatch back the loose clay from under his feet; he reckoned that he had six or, perhaps, eight feet to drive, and he knew that the air could not last long in the new drive — even if that had not already fallen in and crushed his brother. Great drops of perspiration stood out on Tom’s forehead, and his breath began to come in choking sobs, but he still struck strong, savage blows into the clay before him, and the drive lengthened quickly. Once he paused a moment to listen, and then distinctly heard a sound as of a tool or stone being struck against the end of the new drive. Jack was safe!
Tom dug on until the clay suddenly fell away from his pick and left a hole, about the size of a plate, in the “face” before him. “Thank God!” said a hoarse, strained voice at the other side.
“All right, Jack!”
“Yes, old man; you are just in time; I’ve hardly got room to stand in, and I’m nearly smothered.” He was crouching against the “face” of the new drive.
Tom dropped his pick and fell back against the man behind him.
“Oh, God! my back!” he cried.
Suddenly he struggled to his knees, and then fell forward on his hand and dragged himself close to the hole in the end of the drive.
“Jack!” he gasped, “Jack!”
“Right, old man; what’s the matter?”
“I’ve hurt my heart, Jack! — Put your hand — quick! . . . The sun’s going down.”
Jack’s hand came out through the hole, Tom gripped it, and then fell with his face in the damp clay.
They half carried, half dragged him from the drive, for the roof was low and they were obliged to stoop. They took him to the shaft and sent him up, lashed to the rope.
A few blows of the pick, and Jack scrambled from his prison and went to the surface, and knelt on the grass by the body of his brother. The diggers gathered round and took off their hats. And the sun went down.